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Violent Stars, Phyllis Gotlieb, Tor, 1999, 284 pp.

A stand-alone book, with a neatly-formed resolution, often clashes with a reader's sense of reality; in everyday life, plot threads seldom meet to resolve themselves in a tidy manner, if at all. Of course, the issue of closure itself is at stake in much modern fiction, sometimes for the sake of greater realism: for this exact reason, anti-closure can make a book more believable. At the same time, an orderly climax is a kind of wish fulfillment and so a great deal of genre fiction tends to use that kind of an ending. How to write a realistic narrative that also satisfies the reader? Is realism itself, however it happens to be achieved, a worthwhile goal? Violent Stars is a sequel to Gotlieb's earlier novel, Flesh and Gold, but not in the typical sense. Flesh and Gold had its own ending, but it was also situated in the GalFed future that Gotlieb has been working on for more than thirty years, a future palpably real, with continuing concerns and conflicts as anyone would expect from a growing, evolving civilization. By placing Violent Stars in this milieu, Gotlieb takes advantage of both closure and open-endedness, both a satisfying conclusion and a realistic widening of perspective. Violent Stars features some of the same characters, and is an outgrowth of the conflict in Flesh and Gold. That book featured a brave group of people who exposed a galaxy-wide crime syndicate named Zamos, but why would Zamos just give up when the truth of its existence was revealed? Violent Stars picks up the story a few years later; Zamos is under prosecution on many different worlds, but fights back in any way it can.

Violent Stars has a great opening, which grabs the reader's attention and sympathy, perhaps more so than introduction of Flesh and Gold. Verona is a young teenager, daughter of the GalFed diplomat, Bullivant. Verona's mother has died, and Bullivant regains custody of the estranged child. The two have a tender scene and then Verona is kidnapped. Who would want to abduct an innocent young girl? And if Zamos is responsible, why do they care about Verona? And the plot is off and running, all in the prologue.

Chapter One shows us how Bullivant wakes up the next morning; at first he doesn't know that his daughter is missing, and his first clue is that the household robots are acting strange. Once he has found out about the kidnapping, he calls the authorities, but there has been a murder on Khagodis, the planet where they are staying, so the day becomes quite chaotic. Eventually Bullivant meets up with Skerow, a Khagodi (a highly telepathic alien who looks like a small dinosaur) who will be familiar to readers of Flesh and Gold. The second half of the first chapter switches to the point of view of Verona during her captivity; in addition to her ordeal as a captive, she gets the additional shock of an unlikely rescue: a troop of monkeys, speaking to her, and a strange human who calls himself Ned.

The second chapter brings us back into the life of one Ned Gattes; Ned is living a quiet life with his family, but he somehow gets roped back into the endless intrigue and violence that marks the fight against Zamos. He leaves his home planet and comes to Khagodis; he's busy collecting a troop of monkeys and an attempt is made on his life. He survives, tries to transport the monkeys where they are supposed to go, and suddenly he is asked to rescue a young girl.

As already noted, Violent Stars features the return of both Ned and Skerow from Flesh and Gold, but their roles are quite different in this outing. Skerow becomes friends with Verona while in hiding after the rescue, and then goes on the lam with her when their enemies discover their location. Ned is doing another undercover investigation, under marked protest, and he attracts a lot of trouble in the seedier areas of town. Gotlieb uses a large cast of characters, all of them interesting and often very strange. I liked the depictions of both Verona and Bullivant and their growing friendship after a long separation. The two are courageous but are by no means arrogant and accept help willingly.

Violent Stars is separated into quite long chapters: the book is nearly 300 pages long and, after the prologue, there are only seven chapters. Each chapter is subdivided by headings that indicate either the main point of view character or what the upcoming action will be. This is how Gotlieb supports such a large cast: she tells the story from the viewpoint of many different characters, some peripheral and some crucial to the narrative.

This might be one of Gotlieb's more mellow books, at least in terms of prose style. I don't mean that as a criticism of her earlier, more densely written books, and certainly not of this novel, with its flowing story line and easily approachable plot structure. Gotlieb has developed a style here that is even more concise than usual, but also incredibly articulate. For example, here is the opening paragraph of the Prologue (a section for which I have already noted my fondness): "It was later on that the terrible beast came to take her, and later still that she found out it was called an Ix. It came after all the other upsets, and she was nearly asleep by then. Earlier she had just been lying there wishing she was dead" (9). Lyrical, striking, insightful. A markedly different tone, much smoother, with different rewards for different attributes.

A word about the edition. Some of Gotlieb's books in the past have been packaged dreadfully (I'm thinking of the edition of O Master Caliban! that I own). Violent Stars has beautiful and catchy cover art (jacket design by The Chopping Block) -- it does not depict any particular scene from the novel, but still associates itself with the feel of the novel in some fundamental way. Flesh and Gold was also published by Tor, and it also featured a striking cover, so kudos to Tor for the good work.

First posted: September 19, 1999; Last modified: January 30, 2004

Copyright © 1999-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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